This week’s Song of the Day curator is composer and thereminist Dalit Warshaw! Dalit also performed with NYFOS this week in our concert From Russia to Riverside Drive: Rachmaninoff and Friends. Thank you, Dalit!
from Dalit Warshaw:
It has been a true joy to embark on this genuinely rich musical adventure this past week, probing the deep emotional realms of Rachmaninoff and Schillinger, and working with musicians of such vision and poetry! The juxtaposition of this music with the sultry dreaminess of New York jazz (as heard in Ellington’s On a Turquoise Cloud) illuminated a surprising bond between these two stylistically and culturally distinct worlds: they were linked by their harmonic vocabularies which – while each finding wholly unique ways to indulge in the possibilities of chromaticism – also managed to meet, not only through a linguistic crossover, but through a ravishing emotional forthrightness, brought so poignantly to the fore in the performances of singers Dina Kuznetsova and Shea Owens. I was so thrilled that the theremin could contribute to this rare and poignant assemblage of music, and that the instrument was presented in the very musical climate intended by its inventor Lev Termen, and its most visionary and virtuosic ambassador, Clara Rockmore.
In signing off, I would like to present my own Nizk’orah, a piece written for a memorial concert honoring Clara that took place at Steinway Hall in 2001, and one that reconciles my various musical identities as composer, pianist and thereminist. There are a few meanings to the title. “Yizkor,” in Hebrew, literally means “He will remember,” and refers in this case to a part of the Jewish liturgy recited on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) when we recall those dear to us who have died. Substitute “n” for “y,” and the word becomes “We will remember”; add an “ah” as a suffix, and the meaning is “We will remember her.” As well, “Orah” could be seen as one of the possible Hebrew translations of Clara’s name, meaning “light” and “joy,” two terms that could appropriately be used to describe prominent elements of her personality. During the course of the work, I refer to some of Clara’s most well-known recordings: one might recognize wisps of a “Vocalise” by Rachmaninoff, for instance, or a “Swan” by Saint-Saens, or a “Hebrew Melody” by Achron. It is as though a continuation of Clara’s song is taking place, but one heard filtered through something of the beyond, over the River Styx.
On this recording, I perform on Clara Rockmore’s original instrument (customized for her by Termen in the early 1930’s, and on which she last performed in 1993), also enabling it to interact with my own Moog 91W model via overdubbing. The theremins are accompanied by me on the piano.
Nizk’orah can be heard on my CD, Invocations, released in 2011 and available on Albany Records.
It has been an honor and pleasure writing for the NYFOS “Song of the Day” blog this past week! For more information about my music and pending concerts, feel free to peruse my website, www.dalitwarshaw.com, as well as my Facebook page at facebook.com/dalitwarshaw. I can also be followed on Soundcloud and YouTube.
This week’s Song of the Day curator is composer and thereminist Dalit Warshaw! Dalit is also performed with NYFOS this week in
our concert From Russia to Riverside Drive: Rachmaninoff and Friends.
from Dalit Warshaw:
…And More About the Vocalise…
As the player of an instrument that shines when exhibiting expressive and expansive melodic line, and as a Neoromantic composer who probes the role of melody pretty much daily, I feel compelled to readdress the idea of the vocalise.
The vocalise, a form originating in the 18th century to connote a “chanson sans paroles” (song without words) and pioneered by composers such as Lully and Rameau, has evolved since its original role as a pedagogical vocal etude. By the early 20th century, the vocalise largely came to mean a vocal and orchestral interlude in the midst of dramatic scores.
It has been an oft-seen goal of composers within the past 100 years to address the past in order to redefine it and bring it into the present, first seen in the efforts of Schoenberg and Stravinsky in their different versions of Neoclassicism, and more recently in the various ways that Neoromantic composers tip their hats to past forms through quotation or pastiche. While variation and sonata forms (and their offshoots, such as symphony and concerto) have experienced (and endured?) their share of exploration and reinvention, it is interesting that the vocalise has not joined their ranks in being transformed within a contemporary context. While the vocalise has found its way into jazz and world musics as the vocalese, it is rare to hear a vocalise written within the last 50 years.
Why might this be? A theory could be that, with the decline in the prominence of melodic line in music composition within the last century, and an increased focus on more motivic and textural writing, there was no room for the vocalise to undergo a transformation while keeping its fundamental long-lined character.
Embarking on a short hunt, I noticed that the results are mostly limited to pre-1950. Faure’s haunting Vocalise-Etude was written in 1906. Stravinsky’s Pastorale was written in 1907, its final revision published in 1933. Rachmaninoff’s aforementioned Vocalise was written in 1912. David Diamond’s Vocalises for soprano and viola was written in 1935. Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brazilieras was written in 1938. Some notable and very beautiful exceptions are George Crumb, Vox Balaenae, Vocalise (1971), John Corigliano’s Vocalise (1999), and Andre Previn’s Vocalise (1995).
Speaking for myself as a composer, while melody must always be at the structural core of my work, whether it be palpably or ambiguously represented, its presence has often taken the back seat to harmony and motive, in this way continuing perhaps in the legacy of Debussy. Every so often, however, I feel I must prove my allegiance to melody in a clearer capacity, either in a need to simplify, or to test how uniquely I can personalize this art so weighted with the shadow of past masters, and so easily perceivable as cliché. How to redefine melody in a way that maintains its properties and yet does not sound derivative?
Alas, I shall leave this question open. In the meantime, I present for you the Vocalise-Etude of Karol Szymanovsky (1928), performed with a dark yet wistful expressivity by Elzbieta Towarnicka, soprano, and Maria Rydzewska, piano.
This week’s Song of the Day curator is composer and thereminist Dalit Warshaw! Dalit is also performed with NYFOS this week in our concert From Russia to Riverside Drive: Rachmaninoff and Friends.
from Dalit Warshaw:
The theremin vs. the ondes Martenot
Inevitably, during the course of my adventures as a thereminist, I am periodically asked about the ondes Martenot: if I can play it, if it is interchangeable with the theremin, and if it would be possible to play an ondes part on the theremin (usually when programming a work of Messiaen). Though the two instruments do converge in certain ways and can sound similar, they are very separate entities, and their repertoire is usually not interchangeable.
The sonority of the ondes does resemble that of the theremin in its eerie, ethereal affect so typical of early electronic instruments, and its capacity to depict broad melodic lines without the need for breath or bow change. (It is notable that the inventors of both instruments were amateur cellists!) It is said that Messiaen was initially intrigued by the timbre of the theremin, but that there were no notable theremin players in Paris at the time and the instrument was perceived as too technically unreliable, due to its hypersensitivity to its environment. Maurice Martenot invented his instrument, translated as the “waves of Martenot,” in 1928.
There are some notable distinctions between the two instruments. With the theremin, we listeners experience lyricism as the product of tension: a simple step-wise tune is in fact achieved by virtually reining in the pitches from a wilderness of ever-changeable frequency, a counter-intuitive way of both achieving and experiencing melodic line. It is precisely this tension that is so arresting. There is also versatility, as the air with which the performer interacts truly functions as a tabula rasa for all manners of microtonal possibility, timbral possibility, glissando (to both comical and eerie effect) and performance of standard Romantic instrumental and vocal fare, preferably lyrical and involving some well-placed interpretive portamento.
The ondes Martenot operates by an inverse principle, featuring a six-octave keyboard, played either through depressing keys or by sliding a metal ring worn on the right-hand index finger in front of it. This ring can also be slid from note to note to contrive a glissando. A glass control is operated by the left hand to manipulate dynamics and timbre. The keyboard, in addition to allowing for more pitch reliability, also enables faster rhythmic action with larger intervallic skips.
I would like to present two versions of the same work, Messiaen’s Feuillets Inedits for ondes Martenot and piano, published
posthumously by his wife, Yvonne Loriod ( a considerable performer of the ondes) in 2001. The first version is a performance on ondes Martenot by Yvonne’s sister Jeanne, the piano part played by Yvonne.
The second version is my own performance of the first two Feuillets Inedits on theremin, accompanied by pianist Melody Fader.
This week’s Song of the Day curator is composer and thereminist Dalit Warshaw! Dalit is also performing with NYFOS this week in our concert From Russia to Riverside Drive: Rachmaninoff and Friends, Sunday in Boston and tonight (Tuesday, Nov 10) at Merkin Concert Hall at Kaufman Music Center. A few tickets are still available if you want to hear Dalit in action on theremin along with soprano Dina Kuznetsova and baritone Shea Owens.
from Dalit Warshaw:
Remembering Clara Rockmore
The three Reisenberg sisters, Nadia, Newta and Clara, immigrated to New York from Russia in 1921; of the three, Nadia and Clara were musical prodigies, Nadia on the piano, Clara on the violin. When Clara first met the inventor Lev Sergeyevich Termen, his new instrument was making waves (so to speak!) in the New York scene with scientists, musicians and the general public alike. The theremin piqued the imaginations of quite a few composers, such as Varese (who wrote for two theremins with specially extended ranges in his Ecuatorial), Schillinger (his First Airphonic Suite, was written for Termen and the Cleveland Orchestra), Martinu (who composed his Fantaisie for theremin, oboe and string quartet and piano), and Ives (whose Fourth Symphony calls for an optional “ether organ”). While Rachmaninoff himself apparently did not react enthusiastically to the instrument, one wonders how he may have responded to Clara’s rendition of his Vocalise, or Song of Grusia!
Clara became Termen’s muse and most profound ambassador for his instrument, collaborating with him in fine-tuning the theremin to suit her refined musical specifications (which included increased sensitivity for the volume antenna, allowing for more nuance in dynamics and articulation, such as staccato).
I first met Clara Rockmore when I was a small girl, during one of my frequent visits to her sister Nadia. Nadia was one of my most significant early musical mentors, inspiring and encouraging me as both a pianist and composer until her passing in 1983, when I was eight years old. Following her death, Clara assumed her sister’s role in my development as a musician and creative artist. She was a complete original: prodigiously musical, and visionary in how she transformed an electronic invention into a poignant, fiercely passionate voice of Romantic music, instilling it with a soul. Her grace, beauty and vibrancy were arresting, ageless, luminous. My years of adolescence were peppered with visits to her apartment for tea, served in elaborate Russian style, accompanied by her sister Newta’s home-made piroshki. I basked in her stories about “Lenny” Bernstein, of Stokowski’s visits to listen to her Bach (“That girl could make music out of a kitchen stove!” he is known to have said), of her concert tours with Paul Robeson.
Clara began teaching me to play the theremin in 1991, when I was 16 years old. At the time, the instrument was considered all but obsolete, and so Bob Moog (inventor of the Moog Synthesizer) was enlisted to build a replica of Clara’s instrument (custom-built for her by Termen), my Moog 91W model that I will be playing in these NYFOS concerts.
I had the privilege of meeting Termen in New York, at a party at Newta’s in 1993, during his first and only visit since his mysterious abduction by the KGB from his uptown apartment so many decades earlier. It was a celebratory return, arranged for by Steven M. Martin, creator of the excellent documentary Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, a film that jump-started a renaissance in awareness and interest in the theremin, inspiring phenomenal young thereminists such as Carolina Eyck and Pamelia Stickney, each of whom have contributed innovative possibilities for performance practice and the instrument’s role in the contemporary music scene.
Behold some more of Clara, this time performing an arrestingly beautiful Rachmaninoff’s Song of Grusia, accompanied by her sister, Nadia Reisenberg:
This week’s Song of the Day curator is composer and thereminist Dalit Warshaw! Dalit is also performing with NYFOS this week in our concert From Russia to Riverside Drive: Rachmaninoff and Friends, yesterday in Boston and tomorrow (Tuesday, Nov 10) at Merkin Concert Hall at Kaufman Music Center. A few tickets are still available if you want to hear Dalit in action on theremin along with soprano Dina Kuznetsova and baritone Shea Owens.
from Dalit Warshaw:
The Russian Soul of the Theremin
First of all, let me open this post by expressing how honored I am to be writing the NYFOS blog for this week! I look forward to sharing with you a variety of theremin-related information, musings and music. Also, as a composer previously commissioned by the New York Festival of Song in 1996 for the program of Brahms Liebeslieder and “American Love Songs,” I am thrilled to be working with Steve Blier and Michael Barrett again, this time as a thereminist! One might argue that the theremin can be heard as an altered, superhuman version of voice: while the instrument is far more recognized as the voice of early sci-fi movies such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, figuring prominently in the film scores of Miklos Rozsa and Bernard Hermann, this extraordinary early electronic instrument can indeed be as much a conveyor of the deep Russian spirit, melodic lyricism and harmonic richness of Rachmaninoff and his musical world. And so, this particular program provides me with a lovely indulgence into the theremin’s latent vocal soul, a potential operatic presence unfettered by limitations of range, register, even gender!
The theremin is something of a paradox: while it is the forerunner for so many subsequent technological inventions ranging from high security alarm systems to the synthesizer, it also remains the electronic instrument most sensitive to human presence, despite the fact that it is played without being touched. Attached to its body are two metal antennae that each control a radio frequency oscillator, and that sense the presence of any object serving as interference within the electromagnetic field (in this case, the player’s hands). One antenna controls pitch (usually manipulated by the right hand), the other volume (typically conducted by the left hand). Playing the theremin presents its highly unique challenges and marvels, among them dealing with its imaginary, fluctuating aerial fingerboard (for which having absolute pitch is preferable). Also, dynamics and articulations are achieved inversely, as the default state of the instrument – when at rest – is sound, the hand carving away at its negative space much like a sculptor chisels at stone, through interference within the electromagnetic field.
I would like to introduce to you all the sublime musical poignancy of Clara Rockmore, as she interprets Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise on the theremin, accompanied by her sister, the divine pianist Nadia Reisenberg. A former violin prodigy and star student of Leopold Auer until an injury to her bow arm compelled her to abandon violin performance, Clara’s theremin performances can be heard as virtual translations of her violinist’s intuitions; one could almost decipher the distinctions of bowing at the frog or at the tip, the positional shifts, a limitlessly subtle palate of vibrato, all through an elaborate system of “aerial fingering” and positions deciphering pitch, dynamics, timbral nuance and expression, within nothing but air.
New York Festival of Song • One Penn Plaza • #6108 • New York, NY 10119 • 646-230-8380 • email@example.com